Category Music

Brilliant Songs #26: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Bogoroditse Devo”

We’re into our annual holiday music mode, our surroundings suffused with traditional Christmas carols and pop songs saluting the season. Little drummer boys going pa rum pum pum pum, sleigh bells jingle-ing, ring-ting tingle-ing, oh, but we have a merry time gliding through the malls and filling our baskets with impossibly packaged toys that resist penetration with all the impregnable fortitude of Fort Knox, do we not?

But amidst all the commercial ballyhoo, there lies a more contemplative dimension: that of a sacred inwardness, a bow to darkened days, the denuded trees and grayed skies of winter, with its incipient if distant promise of renewal.

In much of the world, the symbol of this promise revolves around a child born in a manger to a poor couple, a special star appearing in the sky to note this birth was destined to transform the world...

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Brilliant Songs #25: Jackson C. Frank’s “Marlene”

We all have a core narrative or two or three by which we define our lives, a kind of baseline that self-identifies us and courses through a good part of our relations with the world. Often, they owe at least something to hard luck and trouble overcome—the classic hero’s journey that serves as the core for so many novels, self-help tomes and Hollywood movies.

Sometimes, however, hard luck and trouble just get worse, with even more woe piling on and beating down defenseless souls who can’t seem to catch a break, or who lack the emotional agility and resilience to climb out from under misfortune’s wreckage.

So goes the tragic life story of Buffalo, New York-born singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank, a one-time friend and esteemed fellow musician of Paul Simon and many other luminaries of the 1960s...

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Bobby McFerrin May Be the Richest Man in the World

I have no idea about Bobby McFerrin’s net worth. A quickie Google search tosses out an estimate of $4 million as of 2019. That means he probably won’t have to be busking on street corners to feed himself in his old age, but if even close to accurate, it is certainly no great shakes in the firmament of the uber rich, even within his own rarefied world of popular singers and entertainers. (Bruce Springsteen: $500 million, Jay-Z: $1.4 billion, Tom Hanks: $400 million).

But capital comes in many forms, and to survey McFerrin’s life and body of work is to behold wealth of such staggering proportions as to make a lie of any list proclaiming “The World’s Richest People” that does not include his name.

There we were, bouncing around the kitchen, caught up in McFerrin’s infectiously playful spirit that is unafraid to bend music to his utterly unique sensibilities of vocal play.

Freed from material want and able to ...

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Six Magical Sundays: Ahmir Questlove Thompson’s “Summer of Soul”

Pretty much from its first moment to last, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul,” a film chronicling six magical Sundays of stirring soul music holding forth as the “Harlem Cultural Festival” at Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park in 1969, shows why it’s been a summer-long rage since its July debut streaming on Hulu and in theaters nationwide.

Thompson distilled some 40 hours of meticulously crafted footage shot by a four-camera crew led by the late Hal Tulchin into a 117-minute documentary that includes a laundry list of the greatest soul and gospel acts of the era. It all kicks off with 19-year-old Stevie Wonder playing drums and singing under a light rain in the film’s opening minutes as crew members follow him around the stage with an umbrella. (Did you know Stevie Wonder played drums? I didn’t…)

Things never stop moving from there as the Chambers Brothers, Sly & the Fami...

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Brilliant Songs #24: Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”

As our 20-year nation-building project draws to a catastrophic close in Afghanistan, what do we have to show for it? It’s a painful question made all the more so by the lives of U.S. soldiers and civilians freshly lost in the terrible bombings on Thursday, not to mention the far greater number of Afghans who have paid, and will continue to do so long after our exit, with their lives and freedom for the brief window of semi-democracy both nations worked with such tenacity and treasure to provide for that beleaguered land.

All of it turning now, with near dizzying speed, to ash.

Questions, doubts and recriminations about both our long-running presence and chaotic exit from Afghanistan dominate our national conversation today, at least temporarily pushing the re-emerging horrors of the Covid pandemic out of the spotlight.

The entire symphony is a treasure, a voyage through sorrow and lyricism whose beauty par...

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